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Mardi Gras, Tampa style

The yearly pirate invasion started nearly a century ago and has developed into one big party - complete with beads, booze and lively music.


© St. Petersburg Times, published January 26, 2001

TAMPA -- Super Bowl organizers wanted to give Super Bowl visitors something to do the day before the game. So Gasparilla was moved up a week.

But those same visitors might be asking themselves: What the heck is Gasparilla?

The short answer is that it's Tampa's version of Mardi Gras, complete with a parade, costumes, bead throwing and a relaxed attitude about public drinking. A little flashing, too, all in the cause of bead-gathering.

Still, Tampa is no New Orleans.

Yes, Ye Mystic Krewe of Gasparilla, the group of partying pirates that puts on the annual mock invasion and parade, is based on New Orleans' social clubs, including the odd krewe spelling.

But it's tamer than Mardi Gras, the music you'll hear is mostly high school marching band rather than funky Professor Longhair. And unlike Mardi Gras, Tampa's party lasts just one day (though organizers have tried to extend the fun with the Piratefest downtown Saturday and Sunday).

Tampa has made Gasparilla its own.

The pirate theme comes from Jose Gaspar, who allegedly terrorized the waters off the west coast of Florida in the late 18th century.

What makes Tampa's festival different is the sea invasion that occurs around 1 p.m. Saturday.

Gasparilla is the one time of year regular folks can go down to the richest street in Tampa, Bayshore Boulevard -- where million-dollar mansions stand -- and party. Those mansion owners have taken to hiring security to keep partiers seeking relief out of the bushes.

Hyde Park, a historic neighborhood with high-priced homes, is inundated with strangers. The choice for residents is flee or join in the festivities with their own parties.

The parade route is a party in itself. You'll see nurses and doctors and people who have 9 to 5 jobs pushing grocery carts full of ice and beer, or Radio Flyer red wagons of Captain Morgan's rum.

The day officially starts at 1 p.m. with the invasion of pirates. They leave the Tampa Yacht Club -- one sign that these are not your normal pirates -- and dock at the Tampa Convention Center. But for those in the parade, the day actually starts at 6 a.m.

Members of Ye Mystic Krewe -- the all-male, nearly all-white social club that started Gasparilla 97 years ago and whose membership numbers about 750 -- put on makeup starting that early and then board the replica of a real 18th century pirate ship, the Jose Gasparilla, and head through Hillsborough Bay.

It's not, by any means, the only boat on the water. By noon you will see hundreds escorting the krewe, of all shapes and sizes, some of them belonging to other krewes, but most just regular folks.

The parade has changed over the years. Once dominated by the Gasparilla krewe and a few others, it now features dozens of groups in myriad themed costumes.

The pirates lead the flotilla and are the big draw of the parade partly because they started it and pay for much of the cost. When they dock at 1 p.m., there usually is a little skit that is played out on a plank near the Tampa Convention Center. The pirates disembark and snatch the keys of the city from the mayor.

"Give us the keys to the city!" demands a pirate.

"No," says Tampa Mayor Dick Greco.

The pirates wave their swords.

"Okay," Greco says.

"It looks like we lost again," he tells the audience of kids and adults.

About 1:45, the pirate parade begins down Bayshore Boulevard, starting at Howard Avenue and ending downtown. Like the Super Bowl, corporate tents have begun to pop up along the parade route. Some bleacher seating is available, but most people stand.

You'll hear pistols popping -- Gasparilla parade veterans have learned to stow ear plugs with their beer -- and pirates acting tough. You'll see lots of kids reaching for beads thrown from the floats -- and adults doing the same.

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